Safer Than A Known Way
The gifts have been opened, the Christmas dinner isn’t even leftovers any more, the wrapping paper is out with the trash. The malls have moved on to Valentine’s Day or whatever the next commercial occasion is. But in the church, it is still Christmas. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.
The literal meaning of the word epiphany is manifestation. We use it in ordinary speech – we suddenly see or understand something that was not clear to us before - we light up - and we say we have had an epiphany.
And that is part of the church’s use of the word, too. We have seen something new; it has been clearly revealed to us. It is God coming to us as a baby, it is the Word made flesh. And coming to us – not just the Jews. Epiphany celebrates God’s revelation to the Gentiles, which is what we are. After all, the wise men who came from the east were not Jews. They were most likely Persian and they certainly did not know the God of Abraham.
So today on epiphany we celebrate God’s manifestation in the world and we do that in lots of different ways. Over on Park Street, the three kings are getting ready for tomorrow’s parade when they will ride camels down the street and pass out candy and toys. In homes in New Orleans and elsewhere, people are cutting into King Cake, hoping to find the bean or little trinket that signifies good luck for the year. And we are remembering the magi, known as kings but more likely scholars of astronomy, who traveled to find the newborn Jesus, the one the themselves identified as a King.
But I'm not going to start with a story about any of those kings. I want to begin by talking about a different king: King George VI, King of England, crowned right before the start of WWII. He was an unlikely and reluctant king, pressed into duty following the abdication of his brother Edward, who wanted to marry an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson. All this seems rather quaint now, even in Great Britain, where royal scandals have muted the sense of outrage that people felt in 1930s, but it was quite a to-do at the time.
King George had lived a quiet life and seemed to prefer that. And he was reluctant to take the throne for another reason: he stuttered. Some of you may have seen the movie, “The King’s Speech,” that chronicles his struggle to overcome his stuttering. It is a powerful and moving story.
England entered the war against Hitler in September 1939 and King George, after months of effort and determination, spoke to his nation by radio broadcast – speaking clearly and from the heart. Several months later, he gave another radio speech, the customary King’s Christmas address.
He spoke about the hope and promise of peace to a nation at war, a nation gripped by uncertainty about the future, fearful and yet courageous. At the end of that Christmas day address he quoted from a little poem, saying these powerful words:
I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” The words remind me of those other Kings, the ones who came from the east – they had a light to follow, one leading them into the unknown. We think of them as key figures in our nativity scenes, there in the stable with Mary and Joseph, worshipping the newborn baby, kneeling down in the straw among the animals. But there was no mention of a stable in their story, there was no manger or sheep and shepherds.
There was instead, as another poet once wrote:
A cold coming…,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time …
(T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi)They had the light, they found and followed the star, and they were entering the unknown, but it was anything but safe. It was a hard time, a cold coming. And they might have doubted what they found and how their journey turned out. The first king they encountered was not the one they were hoping to find. They went to King Herod, and you know how that ended up. Not safe at all – not for the kings from the east, not for the King of the Jews, not for the boy babies of Bethlehem.
And I wonder, too, about the return trip of these kings, these magi. What happened to them when they did not have the star to guide them? Why did they know to trust the warning of a dream, to act on some fleeting whisper in the dark, that midnight message from a God they did not know? How did they find their way home?
The known way back, through Jerusalem, by way of the palace of King Herod, was no longer safe, if it ever was. It was not safe for the baby, but it was also not safe for them. What they had seen in Bethlehem must have marked them forever. When they touched the light of the world, it must have lodged in them somehow. Then as they traveled home under a starless sky, maybe they were carrying some of that light within them. When they touched the Child, they had taken hold of the one who was known to them only as Mystery, but that Mystery was the one who would lead them “better than light and safer than a known way.”
And so it is for us, too. For the past six Sundays, like the wise men we have been invited to follow the star. As we prepared for Christmas, as we pondered the meaning of Christ’s coming, as we waited through Advent, we have been also been on a journey not unlike the kings. The light that guided them has guided us, and we, too, have found the child who is the king – the king of the Jews, the king of creation, the king of our hearts.
And now that we have found him, we cannot go back to the old way. It is so tempting to ask for certainty, to seek the familiar, to try to follow the known way. It is so human to want to know where we will end up, to have a lighted path, to pursue a safe destination, but everything has changed now.
We will find our way home, but if we travel that journey in faith, the path will not necessarily be one of our own choosing. We will not always know, and maybe never know, exactly where we are going. But God knows the way. And the voice of love that whispered to the wise men also calls to us.
God waits to take your hand. Reach out into the darkness and you will find the way. Because the one who is the way, the truth, and the life is tugging on your hand, waiting to lead you on, to bring you home, to keep you safe.
We stand at gate of the year, the year of our Lord two thousand fourteen. It is tempting ask for a light that we may tread safely into the unknown. But instead, dear friends:
‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’
© Martha C. Highsmith